The HPV Vaccine for Boys

Gardasil-9 Protects Against Genital Warts and Cancer

Teenage boy (12-13) bracing himself for injection
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Gardasil-9 is a vaccine that protects against infection from the human papillomavirus (HPV), an infectious organism that's spread through sexual contact. It's the most current version of the vaccine available, having replaced the original Gardasil vaccine in May 2017. When the first Gardasil came out, it was recommended for girls and women primarily as a way to help prevent cervical cancer, one of several serious complications of HPV infection.

As researchers came to understand more about HPV, it became clear that the HPV vaccine not only helps to protect against cervical cancer but other cancers as well, including several that affect men. What's more, the virus is spread through sexual contact, which means that a male who's infected with the virus can pass it along to another male or to a female sexual partner.

For these reasons, the recommendations for who should get the HPV vaccine have expanded to include males. If you have a pre-teen son, here's what you should know about the human papillomavirus and Gardasil-9.

HPV Infection and Boys

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 79 million people, mostly in their late teens or early 20s, are infected with HPV. There are many different strains of this virus. Not all of them cause cancer and some ultimately cause no symptoms at all. That's one reason vaccination is so important: It's possible for a person who's unknowingly harboring HPV to pass it along. Gardasil 9 protects against nine strains of HPV that are associated with genital warts and with cancer: types 6, 11, 16, 18, 31, 33, 45, 52, and 58.

For example, certain types of HPV are responsible for genital warts, flesh-toned or gray growths that can be raised or flat and, as the name suggests, appear on the genitals. In males, this means on the penis, scrotum, testicles, anus, groin, or thighs. Genital warts can pop up as single lesions or cluster together in growths that resemble cauliflower.

In most cases, there are no major health risks associated with genital warts, but they can be embarrassing and unsightly. Medical treatment is required to remove them (it often takes multiple visits).

Other strains of HPV can lead to considerably more serious health problems—notably several types of cancer. In males these include: 

  • Penile cancer. Cancer of the penis causes lumps, growths, or swelling of the tip. Luckily, penile cancer is rare. 
  • Oropharyngeal cancer. This mouthful of a term refers to cancer of the throat, mouth, tongue, and/or tonsils, is a type of head and neck cancer that can also be caused by HPV. Males are more likely than females to develop HPV-related oropharyngeal cancer, although it's not totally clear why.
  • Anal cancer may cause symptoms such as rectal itching or bleeding, pain or a sensation of fullness in the anal area, an abnormal discharge from the anus, or a change in bowel movements, like thinning stools. 

In other words, by vaccinating your son, you may save someone else's daughter from a potentially life-threatening disease.

Giving the HPV Vaccine to Young Kids

According the CDC, the ideal age for both girls and boys to receive the HPV vaccine is around 11 or 12. It may seem odd to give a shot designed to prevent a sexually-transmitted infection to kids who are so young. However, the vaccine is less effective people who've already been exposed to HPV—that is, people who are sexually active.

Also, the CDC reports that when the HPV vaccine is given during the preteen years, it produces a more robust immune response. For kids under 15 it's given as a two-dose series, with the first and second shot separated by six to 12 months. People 15 to 26 are advised to get three doses of the vaccine, with one to two months between the first and second shot, and the third six months later. 

In clinical trials, Gardasil-9 has been found to be safe and effective, although it does have some potential non-serious, temporary side effects:

  • Pain, redness, and/or swelling at the injection site
  • Fever
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Headaches
  • Muscle or joint pain

And there are some people who should not get the vaccine, such as those who are severely allergic to yeast or to other ingredients in Gardasil. Your son's pediatrician, who will be aware of his medical history, will be able to advise you if there's any question about the safety of giving your son Gardasil. 

A Word From Verywell

HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection in the United States. While it usually goes away on its own, it can lead to genital warts (an emotionally distressing condition) and/or cancer, specifically anal, penile, and mouth/throat cancer in males, which are potentially life-threatening.

Even though there is no treatment for HPV, you can be proactive and get your son vaccinated, protecting him (and by association, girls) as best you can. 

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